The Bull and the Hyena, Part 22

Inside the CIC onboard Destiny, the atmosphere was absolutely electric. Vor Shen and his crew were positively buzzing in the wake of a successful mission. Shen made a mental note to offer a promotion to the young lieutenant who suggested linking the main guns of every ship in the fleet together for one massive blast. It was a technique that wouldn’t have much practical value in most battles, as it utterly devastated the planet’s surface and left most of the ships drained of energy and defenseless, but in this case it did the job that Shen needed done.

He was pleased that everyone seemed to be so happy about a job well done. He was a little worried that destroying a large city full of civilians would adversely affect morale, but he had safeguarded against that by making sure that none of the crew members in this fleet were actually from Midigal. So many people in this sector of the galaxy were somewhat resentful of the prestige and power of Midigal and its capital city, so it was a fairly simple matter to put together a crew packed with people who were pleased to see Grendemar eradicated.

Yes, indeed, things were going quite well. Now all he needed to do was head back to the royal villa and report to the king. That would be an interesting encounter, but Shen was confident that it, too, would be positive. For him.

***

The bedraggled remnants of the Imperial task force assigned to Midigal dropped out of subspace near Medradi two days after it fled from the superior numbers of the Midigalan fleet. Admiral Lors was sitting in his quarters, still attempting to figure out how to word his report on the battle in such a way as to avoid the Emperor’s wrath. He had two goals with this report. The first was to convince the Emperor to send a much larger fleet in order to rescue Hoshic’s army and get revenge on the Midigalans. The second was to keep his head.

He sighed and rubbed his temples as he received the notification informing him that Decimator had reentered normal space. He felt like he was back in the Academy, taking a particularly difficult exam, and he’d just run out of time halfway through. The report he’d drafted was not at all what he wanted it to be, but he had to submit something now that he was back, and what he’d written at least explained the facts of the battle. He sighed deeply and prepared to transmit it.

He was interrupted by another notification, this time telling him of an urgent message. A sharp stab of fear struck him in the gut. The Emperor. It had to be. That Extrator was not even waiting to receive his report meant nothing good for his career, or his continued existence. Taking a moment to breathe deep and compose himself, he pressed a button on his desk to answer the call. Sure enough, the image of Extrator IV’s head appeared in the space above his desk.

“Your Majesty,” Lors said in what he hoped was a sufficiently humble tone of voice. “I bring bad news from Midigal, I’m afraid.”

“The news is even worse than you know,” the Emperor replied, his voice and expression equal parts furious and sorrowful. “Events have outpaced your return to Medradi. General Hoshic is dead, and his forces have been annihilated.”

“No,” Lors said in a voice barely above a whisper. “How can this be?”

“It seems that Vor Shen is even more ruthless than we ever imagined,” Extrator said with barely controlled fury. “He ordered his fleet to bomb Grendemar into oblivion in order to wipe out our troops. He killed his own people in order to destroy ours.”

“And Hoshic’s forces had no defense against an orbital bombardment,” Lors said, in a voice that mixed horror and awe. “They were completely defenseless.”

“Utterly,” Extrator said. “We don’t know the full extent of the devastation. We’ve been unable to make contact with any units on Midigal, so we have to assume that all personnel have been lost. The only reason we have any inkling that this occurred is because General Shen contacted us and told us what he’d done.”

“Oh,” Lors said, nonplussed. “Well, if that’s the case, how do we know he told us the truth? Maybe it was a bluff to keep us from sending reinforcements.” But Extrator began shaking his head even before Lors finished speaking.

“No, we sent a scout ship to Midigal as soon as we received the news,” Extrator said. “They weren’t able to get much information before the Midigalans forced them to retreat, but they did confirm that there is a smoking crater where Grendemar used to be.”

“Unbelievable,” Lors whispered, and then cleared his throat. “Your Majesty, as the highest ranking surviving military officer in the Empire, I take full responsibility for this debacle, and I accept whatever punishment you deem fit.”

“No, Admiral,” Extrator said firmly. “The punishment for this failure could only be death, and the Empire needs you too badly for me to execute such a judgment. Besides, in all honesty, the responsibility for this disaster rightfully belongs to me. I ordered this operation, in defiance of the advice of both you and General Hoshic. Unfortunately, the Empire also needs my service too badly for me to have myself executed. Thus, in order that justice be done and the Empire not robbed of talented leaders, I have determined that General Izik Hoshic bears the responsibility for the failure of the Imperial Fleet to retake Midigal. As he is already dead, I need not order any executions for justice to be satisfied.”

“My lord is wise,” Lors said, bowing his head, but Extrator snorted in disdain.

“Your lord is practical,” he said with a sneer, “or at least more practical than I was a week ago. I let my desire for a quick end to this war get in the way of sound judgment, and my best friend paid the price for that failure. The One knows that I deserve to be executed, or at least removed from the Throne, for my foolishness, but I still believe that I am the best man for this job, and so I will continue to do it until the One decrees otherwise. May the will of the One be done.”

To be continued…

The Bull and the Hyena, Part 21

Mekin Ascora stood on a rise outside of Grendemar, gazing out over the skyline, not there was much skyline left after hours of orbital bombardment. Miraculously, Ascora, Foldren, and Chalix had managed to get themselves and the rest of the civilians out of the city without further incident after the little girl’s mother was killed.

Teas. That was her name. They had reached the outskirts of the city just as the bombing seemed to die down, and for the past half hour, they’d been sitting on this rise, trying to catch their breath and come to terms with the horrors they’d seen. In that half hour, Teas had calmed down enough to tell Ascora her name, but that was all he’d been able to get out of her.

“We need to keep moving, Ascora,” Chalix said, coming up to him and speaking in a low voice in his ear. “Those were our orders.”

“I know, Chalix,” Ascora said, just as quietly. “But these people need a few more moments.”

“Two minutes,” Chalix said firmly. Ascora nodded, and Chalix went off to tell everybody. Ascora just wanted to collapse on the ground and sleep for a week, but Chalix was right. Just because the bombing had stopped for now, didn’t mean that the Midigalans were done. And just because they’d limited themselves to inside Grendemar until now, didn’t mean things were going to stay that way.

Ascora yawned and stretched and turned back toward the rest of the group. There was very little chatter as everyone got ready to keep moving. Everybody was still too traumatized by what they had experienced to have much to say. Ascora couldn’t blame them. Their homes, their possessions, their friends and families, all of it had just been crushed by a fleet of warships orbiting out of sight of the planet’s surface.

Ascora and Foldren started trudging together down the path leading down into a nearby valley, leaving Chalix to herd up the civilians. Despite her hard exterior, or maybe because of it, the civilians seemed to listen to her the most, and Ascora and Foldren were happy to leave her to it. Although she grumbled about having to babysit a “bunch of useless civvies”, and told them repeatedly that she’d leave them behind if they didn’t keep up with the pace she set, she was the one who would lend an arm for a straggler to lean on or give a quiet, encouraging word to someone who seemed about to give into despair. Foldren would have just as soon shot them all in the head so he didn’t have to deal with them anymore. And Ascora? He just wanted to save them cause those were his orders. He didn’t care about them as people. At least, that’s what told himself.

A scream from behind him caused Ascora to look back at the city, and what he saw there almost made him drop his rifle. The sky was glowing red with energy, like the eye of an angry god. He didn’t know exactly what could be causing such a thing, but he knew it couldn’t be good. For a second, he was frozen in place, unable to think or move or react at all. But then his instincts and training took over.

“RUN!” he bellowed as loud as he could, and then followed his own advice. He didn’t look back to see if anyone was following him. If they weren’t, nothing else he could do would save them now. He didn’t know what was going on, but something told him that anyone who wasn’t down in the valley in the next few seconds was dead.

Then he remembered Teas. He stumbled to a halt about halfway down the slope and looked back. He couldn’t see her anywhere. As much as he tried to convince himself that he didn’t care about any of these civilians, he couldn’t fool himself when it came to Teas. Even though it’d only been a few hours since he’d met her, he already cared about her deeply, and couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her to die.

Although he knew it was hopeless, he turned and started running back up the hill. Before he’d made it more than a few meters, however, he saw Chalix cresting the ridge with Teas in her arms. He tried to turn again to go back down the hill, now that he knew she was accounted for, but he twisted his ankle and collapsed to the ground. Chalix was just passing him as he fell, and she stopped to try and help him when she saw he was down.

“Go!” he gasped, trying to ignore the pain in his ankle. “Keep moving!” Chalix just shook her head without a word, and in one smooth motion, tucked Teas under one arm and pulled Ascora up with the other. Together, they stumbled as fast as they could down the hill.

They had just reached the bottom of the valley when a blinding flash of red light blotted out the sky. It was followed a split second later by a deafening boom that seemed to go on forever. The combination of light and sound obliterated all other sensations, and for what seemed like an eternity, Ascora lay in the mud, his entire being consumed by whatever was happening on the other side of the ridge.

Finally, the light and the sound died away, leaving an aching emptiness in its wake. Ascora opened his eyes slowly, gradually becoming aware of the pain in his ankle again. He tried to stand up, and then collapsed into the mud again, and just lay there, gasping for breath. He was dimly aware of Foldren and Chalix having an angry conversation, which ended with Foldren storming back up the ridge that the group had just run down. He looked over to see Teas huddled up in a little ball next to him, sobbing quietly. He tried to reach over to pat her head or rub her back comfortingly, but she was too far away for him to reach, and he couldn’t muster up the energy to move closer to her.

After several minutes, he managed to pull himself up to a sitting position just as Foldren ran back down the hill. Foldren went up to Chalix, and she motioned for them both to come over by Ascora.

“It’s all gone,” Foldren said wearily, plopping down onto the ground next to Ascora. “I don’t know what the Midigalans did, but it was thorough. Grendemar… well, it doesn’t exist anymore. There’s nothing left.” With that, he collapsed and lay down on the ground, breathing heavily and staring blankly at the sky. Chalix and Ascora just stared at each other, both of them thinking the same thing: Now what?

To be continued…

The Bull and the Hyena, Part 20

Dust drifted down from the ceiling over Izik Hoshic’s head as another explosion shook the command building. He and his staff would have to evacuate soon, but as long as he felt like he had some control over his army’s evacuation from Grendemar, he was going to stay. Communication with individual units had been sporadic at best, but what little information Hoshic did have was not good. As far as he could tell, at least two-thirds of his forces had been eradicated, and the rest were not having much luck getting out of the city.

Perhaps evacuating had been a mistake, but Hoshic couldn’t think of any alternative that would have been better. There were no structures in Grendemar designed to stand up to an orbital bombardment, aside from the barracks he was in, and that wasn’t nearly big enough to hold 200,000 troops. And why would there be any such structures? Most of Grendemar had been built in the long years of peace following the Nether War, and the architects who built the city hadn’t even conceived of preparing it for war.

Despite the lack of good alternatives, the evacuation was proving disastrous. Hoshic’s forces had initially attempted to flee using the dropships that had brought them to the surface, but they quickly found those were easily tracked and destroyed by the Midigalans. The same thing went for any land vehicles that they managed to commandeer. The only troops who had successfully made it out of the city so far had done so on foot, so Hoshic had sent out the order to all units to make sure they were avoiding vehicles.

So far, the bombing was limited to inside the Grendemar city limits, but Hoshic was worried that the radius of the target area might be expanded in order to make sure that as many Imperial troops as possible were eliminated. Therefore, he had ordered his troops to get as far into the wilderness as possible. His hope was that the more widely scattered his forces were, the harder it would be for the Midigalans to completely finish them off.

“General, report coming in from Jarzek Company,” said one of his aides. “They’ve successfully made it out of the city and into the Graladon Woods, but they’ve suffered 60 percent casualties.”

“Thank you, Major,” Hoshic replied, wiping his face with a handkerchief. More good news mixed with bad. He knew that he was lucky to have any of his troops escape this slaughter, but he was so tired of death. He hadn’t joined the military to watch comrades and subordinates die. He’d joined up to serve the Empire that he loved, to give back to society and protect the people he loved from whatever threats might be lurking in the shadows. He hadn’t expected to have to fight a war someday. It had been so long since the Nether War that no one remembered what war was like or how to fight one.

He was jolted out of his thoughts by a deafening explosion that shook the building and caused chairs and lamps to fall over. Hoshic himself was knocked off his feet and onto his back.

“Report!” he bellowed as he scrambled to his feet.

“Sir, a bomb just hit the building directly!” yelled a lieutenant frantically.

“We should be fine, though, right?” Hoshic asked. “This building is designed to withstand an orbital bombardment!”

“In theory, sir, but that’s never been tested!” the lieutenant yelled back. Hoshic’s eyes widened as he pondered the implications of that statement. As he pondered, the building shuddered violently again. Everyone in the room was thrown to the floor again, and large cracks appeared in the walls.

“Sir, I think they’re targeting us purposefully!” yelled a major. Hoshic stared at her in horror for a second, and then quickly came to a decision.

“Evacuate!” he yelled as loud as he could. “Get out of here! We can’t trust this place to stay standing!” His words caused a flurry of activity, as all of the officers on his staff rushed to get out of the barracks before the Midigalans destroyed it. Hoshic himself stood up slowly, eyes surveying the room carefully to make sure that everyone was moving as quickly and orderly as possible.

He was determined to be the last person to leave the building. He started stalking through the halls, making sure that the order to evacuate had spread to everyone, and snapping at anyone who was moving too slowly for his liking. Two more blasts hit the building as he roamed, causing more cracks to appear in the walls and more injuries to his personnel.

Then, there was a long pause. For half an hour, nothing more happened. No bombs hit the barracks, and reports were starting to come in that indicated that perhaps the bombing was over. Hoshic was starting to feel hopeful that the worst was over, and that maybe he and the rest of his troops would survive after all.

Hoshic followed the last of his soldiers out of the building and onto the street outside. The scene that greeted him was like a vision from a nightmare. Buildings were broken and toppled, rubble and bodies and blood were strewn everywhere. For a moment, all Hoshic could do was stop and stare, but then he remembered that he wasn’t safe yet. He turned and followed his troops down the street.

It took him a moment to realize that something was wrong. He ran past several soldiers before he became aware that none of them were moving, and all of them were looking up at the sky. He too, stopped, and looked up, and what he saw there made his blood run cold.

It was as if the One himself had opened up the heavens and was preparing to rain down vengeance against the Imperial Army. The sky was glowing with red-orange energy. The Midigalan ships were charging up their main guns for one last blast, to wipe Grendemar from the face of the galaxy. All Hoshic had time to do was fall to his knees and offer up a quick prayer for his soul, and the souls of his troops, before the Midigalan fleet unleashed its fury on the invaders.

To be continued…

The Bull and the Hyena, Part 19

Pvt. Ascora shielded his eyes as a massive fireball flared up in front of him about a mile away, just as he climbed up on top of a large pile of rubble. As someone who was born and raised in Selorin, he’d always assumed that provincial cities were small and somewhat feeble things, but he was rethinking that assessment. There was nothing like trudging through a city on foot while bombs fell from space to make a person realize just how big that city was.

There were only two other soldiers left in his platoon. One was a stocky, dark-complexioned young man, Private Gareg Foldren, and the other was a slightly older red-haired woman, Corporal Vedra Chalix. He didn’t know either one of them well. He’d been assigned to this unit the day before the fleet left Medradi, so he’d only met them a few days ago.

“I don’t like this, Ascora,” Foldren grumbled as they slid and stumbled together down the other side of the rubble hill. “We should be looking for a place underground to wait out the bombing. Trying to move through this mess is just begging for the Midigalans to kill us.”

“I’m not thrilled about it either, Foldren,” Ascora replied, trying to watch the sky for falling bombs at the same time as he was watching the ground so he didn’t trip on anything. “But those are our orders. Get out of the city. Take any civilians we find with us. Maybe there isn’t anywhere in Grendemar deep enough or fortified enough to stand up to an orbital bombardment.” He brushed a strand of stringy blond hair off of his face with a dirty hand and sighed.

“Foldren, how many times have I told you to shut up?” Chalix said behind them. As the highest ranked remaining member of the platoon, she was technically in command, but Foldren so far had balked at following the orders of a fellow soldier who barely outranked him. “Whining about our orders isn’t going to help us survive right now.” Foldren scowled at her, but he held his tongue.

Behind Chalix, there was a small group of civilians, about a dozen of them. They spanned a wide range of ages, from a white-haired old man with a cane, to a little girl who couldn’t have been more than three years old, clinging to her mother’s hand. The expressions on their faces ranged from stunned to resigned to utterly terrified. Ascora couldn’t blame them. It must be horrible to think that your own leaders were dropping on bombs on you from orbit. At least if Ascora died here, it would be at the hands of an enemy.

One moment they were trudging along wearily, and then the next they were suddenly knocked to the ground by the concussive force of another nearby explosion. For a brief moment that stretched on for eternity, everything ceased to exist for Mekin Ascora. He lay on the ground, all of his senses completely numbed by massive blast of energy. Then slowly, painfully, he returned to life, and began the agonizing process of rising to his feet and trying to figure out what was going on around him.

Chalix and Foldren were okay, as were most of the civilians, but there was one exception. A young woman had been thrown against a protruding spike of debris, and it had pierced her back and punched through her abdomen. Ascora sighed heavily when he realized it was the mother of the little girl. The child seemed okay physically, but she was pulling on her mother’s leg, crying for her to stand up, or even say something. Ruthlessly shoving down his emotions, Ascora immediately went over to the little girl, grabbed her by the waist, and slung her over his shoulder. Her cries immediately became shrill and desperately frantic, which Ascora found extremely difficult to ignore.

“By the One, man,” said Foldren, appalled. “Give the kid a chance to grieve.”

“We don’t have time, Foldren,” Ascora shot back, more harsh than he intended. “Another bomb could drop here any second. We need to keep moving!”

“Ascora’s right,” said Chalix. “We can’t stop. There will be time to mourn if any of us survive this.” There was some grumbling from the other civilians, but it was too low for Ascora to make out any specifics. Chalix fixed them with a hard stare, which silenced them, but most of them still had resentful looks on their faces. “Look, I don’t really care if you people follow us or not,” she said angrily. “I have orders to try and save any civilians I come across, but if you don’t want to be saved, that’s not my problem. Stay here and die, for all I care. But if you want to live, you’d better come with us.” She turned and trudged off. Ascora and Foldren followed her, the child beating her little fists on Ascora’s back.

After a few minutes, Ascora looked back and, somewhat to his surprise, all of the civilians were still following. He wondered about that. Despite Chalix’s words, their chances of survival really weren’t likely to increase if they followed the Imperial soldiers. It wasn’t as if the three of them had any sort of defense against orbital bombardment, or any idea of what to do or where to go.

Maybe just the thought that somebody, somewhere, had some sort of plan was motivating them. After all, the universe had been flipped upside down completely within the last few years. The people of Midigal probably had no great love for the Empire, but it wasn’t as if they chose to become a separate kingdom either. Ascora highly doubted that Ventelin and the Merchants’ Council held any sort of referendum to let the citizens of Midigal decide whether or not to secede from the Empire. They just did it, and now the people were living with the consequences, which, in this case, meant getting bombed from orbit by their own fleet. In those circumstances, Ascora could see how a person would cling to any thread of hope, no matter how flimsy it might turn out to be.

To be continued…

The Bull and the Hyena, Part 18

“Status report, Lieutenant,” said Vor Shen calmly.

“The operation is proceeding as planned, General,” replied the young lieutenant monitoring the devastation on the surface. “We are experiencing no resistance from the Imperial Army.”

“Excellent,” Shen replied. “Keep me posted.” He was in the CIC onboard Destiny, keeping an eye on the progress of the “battle”. As Shen had anticipated, the Imperial forces had not expected him to bomb his own capital city, and thus they were defenseless. It was exactly the sort of limited thinking that had convinced Shen that the Empire was a dying entity. Destroying Grendemar had so many benefits for Shen, and very little downside. For one, it eliminated the Merchants’ Council, which removed a major competitor for political power within the kingdom.

There was another reason though. Grendemar was a city with a great deal of history, and that history was linked to the Empire. If Grendemar had remained the capital of the Kingdom of Midigal, everything that kingdom did would be colored by its Imperial past. Better to burn it down and start fresh, with a brand new capital, one unencumbered by links to an aging behemoth.

Vor Shen had been smiling so much throughout this battle that his face hurt, but he couldn’t help himself. Even though his plan to kill Ventelin had failed, he had proved that he was not to be trifled with. The success of this battle plan meant that he held all the cards. Let Calaia Tromin demand that he open up his personal files! The woman had no power now. If Ventelin insisted on continuing to treat Shen like dirt, Shen would simply remind him who destroyed the Imperial forces, and suggest that maybe Fangalin, or Hadramoris, would appreciate the services of a proven military leader. It was so perfect. He was even starting to think that maybe it was for the best that Ventelin still lived. Ruling through a pliant puppet would be more entertaining than ruling outright.

***

Izik Hoshic had seen horrible things in his lifetime, but nothing compared to the destruction of Grendemar. The devastation was appalling. Not only were his troops getting slaughtered, but so were millions of innocent civilians. Perhaps it was a little hypocritical of Hoshic to be concerned about civilians, considering many of them would have been killed in a battle between the Empire and Midigal anyway, but it reminded Hoshic too much of the massacre in the courtyard of the Imperial Palace. He had hoped he would never have to witness anything like that again, and yet, here he was.

And there was nothing he could do about it. He had no weapons that could attack an orbiting starship from the surface of a planet. Such weapons were rare and expensive, and no one involved in planning this operation ever imagined that they would be necessary. So, unable to fight back, Hoshic and his troops were doing everything they could to evacuate the city. It wasn’t going to be enough.

The reports he was getting were fragmentary, at best, but he estimated that he’d already lost a third of his forces, and his evacuation plans were just getting underway. The bombing was too heavy and coming too quickly for him to have any hope that more than a handful of his troops would actually get out of the city. And then what? They had no way of getting off the planet. They’d have to go into hiding in the countryside and hope they could elude the Midigalan army.

The other complication was that they were trying to evacuate civilians from the city as well, which was difficult, since they were, well, an invading enemy army. Not only that, but distrust of the Empire had long been a problem in the outer worlds. The farther one got from Trisitania, the more likely it was that people saw the Empire as an enemy, and Midigal was in a weird in-between state where it wasn’t quite an outer world, but it wasn’t really considered a core world either. The result was that people were following the Imperial Army’s orders to evacuate Grendemar, but they were doing it slowly and begrudgingly.

Maybe Hoshic should have just let the people of Grendemar be, let them die at the hands of their own leaders, but he just couldn’t stand by again and watch people be slaughtered. He did that when the Emperor seized the Imperial Palace, and he did it again when his troops destroyed the Legion of the Heart in the ISS offices. He had feared the wrath of the Emperor in those situations, but the Emperor was a long way away now, and it was unlikely that he would survive long enough to learn what the Emperor thought of his actions. If he was going to die on Midigal, he was going to do so on his own terms.

***

Private Mekin Ascora barely even flinched as a skyscraper about a half mile away disappeared in a nightmarish cloud of smoke and fire. He had joined up with the Imperial Army about a month ago, in a naively optimistic mix of patriotism and a desire for adventure. The reality of war was much more terrible than he’d ever imagined, but he hadn’t had a chance to reflect on it yet. The first bomb that fell from the sky had obliterated half of his regiment, and he’d been driven by adrenaline ever since.

“Come on!” he yelled to the small group of civilians following him. “We need to keep moving! The next bomb could land right on us!” He and his platoon had been cut off from the chain of command, but the last order he’d received had been to round up as many civilians as possible and get out of the city. He intended to carry out that order to the best of his ability. He’d already gotten more than he bargained for when he joined the army, and he didn’t expect to survive this day, but he couldn’t dwell on any of that. He was a soldier, and he was going to do his duty until the bitter end.

To be continued…